NFC West News & Notes - 10/27/05

More coaching drama at Rams Park, more rushing troubles in 'Zona, more harsh reality for Mike Nolan, and a little vacation time for the Seahawks in today's NFC West News & Notes.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The Seahawks held three practices during their bye week last season. They promptly lost three consecutive games, turning a 3-0 start into a 3-3 record on the road to 9-7. The approach is different this time. Coach Mike Holmgren promised his team a full week off as long as the Seahawks defeated Houston and Dallas. He made good on the promise after Seattle beat both Texas teams in upping its record to 5-2. Players were off beginning Monday night. Coaches worked through Tuesday. The plan was for everyone to be back in Seattle by Sunday. Practice is scheduled to resume Monday. The Seahawks return from the bye for a Nov. 6 road game against Arizona.

The opportunity is here for Seattle to recharge its batteries and finish strong. Starting WR Bobby Engram is close to returning from cracked ribs. Starting CB Andre Dyson is coming back from a pulled hamstring. Former starting RT Floyd Womack is returning from triceps and quadriceps injuries. Some of the older players -- notably FB Mack Strong and C Robbie Tobeck -- could use the extra rest.

With upcoming games against Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco, the Seahawks have a good shot at reaching 7-3 or 8-2. The team's recent history suggests that will be easier said than done, even though Holmgren is quite pleased with the chemistry and professionalism of his current group.

The Seahawks have never come out of a bye with a victory in six previous seasons under Holmgren. They also struggled on the road against the Cardinals last season, with QB Matt Hasselbeck tossing four interceptions as his receivers wilted under press coverage. The Cowboys used similar tactics to great effect Sunday.

The offense will hold up better against top defenses if Engram returns to form after the bye. Fellow starting WR Darrell Jackson will need a few more weeks to come back from knee surgery. Seattle should be able to get by without him through the upcoming soft spot in the schedule, but the Seahawks might need Jackson back on the field for a Nov. 27 home date with the Giants. "We're a little banged up and stuff like that, but it's not a 16-week season for this team this year," QB Matt Hasselbeck said. "We're expecting to play a little bit further than that -- play an extra month of football.

"I think the break right now is coming at a good time, at the right time. It might be nice to just refresh a little bit and reintroduce yourself to your family."

NOTES, QUOTES

--K Josh Brown was a soccer-style kicker long before the soccer-style throw-in of his helmet Sunday. Brown took off his helmet and threw it across the turf after nailing a 50-yard field goal to defeat the Cowboys as time expired. "I kicked the game-winner in college and I got piled on and that is not where you want to be in that situation," Brown explained. "So, I took my helmet off in hopes that they would ease up a little bit. Let's have fun and celebrate the moment, but I want to come out without any bruises and scars."

The strategy didn't work. "I still got smacked around quite a bit," Brown said. "I should probably keep it on next time."

--CB Jordan Babineaux had 15 voice-mail messages waiting for him by the time he came off the field Sunday. Babineaux's 25-yard interception return put Seattle in position to kick the winning field goal against Dallas as time expired. "I had some of my college teammates and friends call to thank me and congratulate me," Babineaux said. "It was pretty big." Babineaux saved the ball he intercepted. Teammates passed it around the locker room for signatures before delivering it to FS Ken Hamlin, who is sidelined by head injuries suffered during an Oct. 17 assault.

BY THE NUMBERS: Zero -- The number of fumbles lost by Seattle in 207 rushing attempts this season.

QUOTE TO NOTE:
"There is nothing worse than watching a game and having every other play a penalty. Nobody wants that. We have never been a hugely penalized team. This year we have more, particularly in the holding area." -- Coach Mike Holmgren, whose team is on pace for 109 penalties, up from a league-low 79 last season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Seahawks brought in five offensive linemen for tryouts during the bye week as the personnel department did its homework. The team did not plan to sign any of the five unless a need arose. The linemen given tryouts included Jason Jiminez, William Obeng, Javiar Collins, Steve Sciullo and Tyson Walter.

--CB Jordan Babineaux is playing well enough to gain long-term consideration as a possible starter. Babineaux has been behind Marcus Trufant, Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon this season. But with Dyson out recently, Babineaux has played well. His late 25-yard interception return helped Seattle beat Dallas on Sunday.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES


--CB Andre Dyson is expected to return from a hamstring injury after the bye week.

--WR Darrell Jackson is probably still several weeks away from getting back on the field. He underwent knee surgery Oct. 5. A precise timetable for his return is not yet known.

--WR Joe Jurevicius' stinger injury is not serious. He'll return after the bye week.

--WR Bobby Engram is expected to return from cracked ribs after the bye week.

--FS Ken Hamlin has been released from a Seattle hospital but his playing future remains in doubt. He suffered head trauma during an altercation last week.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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It really is no mystery why the Cardinals can't run and consequently struggle in critical short-yardage, third-down and red zone situations. Most finger-pointing is at the line, an obvious target.

It is true that the interior is populated by inexperienced starters. Left guard Reggie Wells is in his second season as a starter, center Alex Stepanovich is in his second season in the league after starting 16 games as a rookie, and right guard Elton Brown is starting as a rookie. It also is true that the tackles have hit no rhythm. Leonard Davis on the left side was a fine college tackle but seems miscast there as a pro with his lack of mobility on a 370-pound body that makes him better suited to play inside; right-side starter Oliver Ross, signed as a free agent last winter, missed most of preseason with a leg injury, and has missed the past three games with another miss coming this Sunday at Dallas because of a broken hand.

And there's no depth.

That's not a pretty picture when facing third-and-two at the opponent's 18-yard line. But the problem goes deeper than that. Take a look at the fullback. Obafemi Ayendabejo is not a lead-blocking fullback, and many snaps he is not even on the field when the team uses spread formations with three wideouts.

Massive James Hodgins was being counted on for lead blocking before he suffered a season-ending knee injury early. The team signed Jarrod Baxter, who has been an effective blocker in the league, early this month but he has yet to make a difference. Take a look at the tight ends. Anybody ever heard of Eric Edwards, Adam Bergen or Teyo Johnson? There's not a consistently strong run blocker among them. In fact, it's a stretch to describe any of them as a receiver, either.

So when the team initially handed the ball to a diminutive, inexperienced back, rookie J.J. Arrington, it is no mystery why he had no place to run. At least Marcel Shipp, who has taken the starting job, has a big body and knows how to use it effectively. Shipp always has managed to rush for a high per-carry average between the tackles. But even Shipp is at a career-low 2.5 yards a carry so far. Arrington is at 2.4, bolstered by a career-long 32-yard run against Tennessee last Sunday. But on Arrington's four other carries against the Titans, he had minus-2 yards.

Through six games, the team has the worst red-zone production in the league. The offense has scored only six touchdowns in six games -- none rushing.
So Josh McCown is putting up 300-yard passing games, and Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, two of the league's finest young receivers, continue to snag balls at an eye-popping rate. But until the team figures out a way to get more out of the ground game than the 71-yard average that ranks next to last in the NFL, it is going to remain a team that talks about its fabulous passing statistics instead of its wins.

SERIES HISTORY -- 83rd meeting of the former NFC East rivals. The Dallas Cowboys lead the series 53-28-1 but the Arizona Cardinals have won two of the past three. The teams have not met since 2003, when Cowboys QB Quincy Carter passed for 277 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-7 rout at Texas Stadium on Oct. 5, 2003. The most memorable game in the series from the Cardinals perspective came on Jan. 2, 1999 when, after their only winning season (9-7) since moving to Arizona in 1988, they went to Texas Stadium and ended the league's longest playoff-drought with a 20-7 upset win in the opening round. It ended a half-century without a playoff win for the beleaguered franchise.

NOTES, QUOTES

-- Exactly how did DE Calvin Pace suffer a season-ending slice on his arm that required surgery to repair tendons? The team still is trying to figure it out, and the answer will be key to whether it pays Pace for the remainder of the season. He stands to lose just over $300,000 if the team docks him. He is on the Reserve-Non-Football Injury List after suffering the cut at his Atlanta home during the bye week. Pace told The Arizona Republic the injury was not the result of horseplay. Pace told The Republic he was "sitting near the window and I fell back and my arm was against the window, and (the window) just shattered."

Pace was the top backup on both sides and had found his way onto the field when the team used three defensive ends in some situations. That comes after Pace, the 18th pick overall in the first round of the 2003 draft, had one sack in 16 starts as a rookie, causing the team last year to sign free agent Bertrand Berry, who took the job and became a Pro Bowler. Pace's comeback this year was beginning to quiet those ready to write him off as another Cardinals draft bust.

"I just felt like I let everybody down," Pace told The Republic. "I was finally at the level I wanted to be at and they wanted me to be, and then for this to happen, I let everybody down."

-- Pace certainly was not on hand for the Cardinals "Making the Cut" charitable endeavor last week. Several other players -- among them T Leonard Davis, WR Anquan Boldin, DT Darnell Dockett, QB Josh McCown, K Neil Rackers and RB Marcel Shipp -- helped the pros at Rolf's Salon in Scottsdale cut and style hair in exchange for a $65 donation to Cardinals Charities.

Quarterback Josh McCown, who in three games as starter has tossed numerous deep balls, this time was the master of a deep conditioning treatment.
"It really helps the hair shine," McCown said. "I don't know how much that little bottle costs, but I could use that on my daughter."
Running back Marcel Shipp assisted on head massages. "These are skills and techniques that can really be a plus for me," Shipp said. "What lady wouldn't love it? And I think I may have a future in this."

-- Reflecting on the passing of New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, a fellow "old-school" owner, observed, "The National Football League has truly lost a giant, and a gentleman in every sense of the word. Every individual who shares in the league's success owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Wellington Mara. Professional accomplishments aside, I will remember him just as much for his unmatched integrity, character and class. It was a privilege to be a colleague of Wellington Mara but an even greater honor to be a friend."

-- CB David Macklin's 60-yard touchdown return against Tennessee was the team's longest in nearly a year, since Renaldo Hill took one back 70 yards against St. Louis on Nov. 23, 2004.

BY THE NUMBERS: 0 -- Points scored by the opposition in the second half of games the team has won this year.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I always grew up wanting to play in the Dallas Cowboys stadium just so I could stand on that star, and now I am going to get my opportunity." -- DT Darnell Dockett, on the Cardinals' visit to Texas Stadium on this Sunday.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The defense is beginning to see results of the aggressive schemes of coordinator Clancy Pendergast for which it became known last season. Through five games, it was largely silenced this year. Then OLB Karlos Dansby had a sack, forced fumble and recovery on one play that set up an insurance score in the win vs. Tennessee. CB David Macklin, back from a hamstring injury, took a pick back 60 yards for a score. While the offense is producing big yardage figures, it is not putting the ball in the end zone. The defense must continue to force the issue and produce scores, or set up scores, for this team to have a chance.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

-- QB Josh McCown is expected to remain the starter Sunday at Dallas. McCown began his college career in Dallas at Southern Methodist University. McCown is 2-1 as the starter this season on a 2-4 team. Last season, he was 6-7 as the starter on a 6-10 team. In his last 16 starts, the equivalent of an NFL season, he is 8-8. Since the team moved to Arizona in 1988, it has reached the eight-win mark only twice in 17-plus seasons.

-- WR Anquan Boldin failed to catch a pass for the first time in his 31-game career against the Tennessee defense. He was coming off back-to-back 100-yard receiving games. Boldin had at least three catches in every game he had ever played. In his 32-game career, Boldin has 193 catches, the most ever by an NFL player in his first 32, and 11 more than next-closest Lionel Taylor, who played for Chicago, Denver and Houston during the 1960s.

-- RB J.J. Arrington not only had the longest run of his brief career -- 32 yards -- against Tennessee, but it nearly equaled his output in his first five games combined -- 41 yards. That was the good news. The bad is that Arrington had minus-2 yards on his four other attempts against the Titans, more closely resembling the disappointing season the rookie second-round pick is enduring. He has lost the starting job to Marcel Shipp and even quarterback Josh McCown, who has played in only three games, has more rushing yardage (73) than Arrington (71).

-- OLB Karlos Dansby continues to be the highlight of a lame defense. With another sack, forced fumble and recovery against the Titans, Dansby now has three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in six games. The second-year playmaker from Auburn also leads the Cardinals with 47 tackles.

-- DE Antonio Cochran, signed four days before the Tennessee game, gives the team relief where it had become perilously thin following the season-ending arm cut suffered at home during the bye week by top backup Calvin Pace. Cochran started 32 games during six seasons at Seattle. Cochran is the top backup on both sides, to Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor, and is expected to see duty in the three-DE alignments the team used effectively in situations with Pace.

-- WR/KR J.J. Moses was re-signed. He had been claimed on waivers in late August and appeared destined to be the team's kickoff and punt returner when he survived the final cut. But a day later, after Reggie Swinton became available, Moses was cut in favor of Swinton. Swinton has a toe injury but played through it last weekend. Moses is expected to be the fourth receiver and the backup returner.

-- WR Charles Lee was cut a day after he exchanged words on the sideline with special-teams coach Kevin O'Dea. Lee was the fourth receiver but played on all the special teams. He had 11 catches (13.8-yard average).

-- LB Eric Johnson was released from Injured Reserve.

GAME PLAN: Josh McCown is expected to get his fourth straight starting assignment in place of Kurt Warner, whose groin strain is nearly 100 percent. With McCown at the throttle, the Cardinals have moved the ball through the air for big yardage, largely because they can't run and have no other choice. While they gain yardage, they can't stick the ball in he end zone. The offense has accounted for only six touchdowns in six games, all passing. Despite a week of work emphasizing the run during their bye, the Cardinals came back last week with a mere 55 rushing yards against Tennessee in a game they won because their defense scored. They can't give up on the run. Just the opposite, they should continue to establish it. But they also have to be realistic. Look for them to wing it against the Cowboys' 3-4 defense.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

-- Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett, who is following a strong rookie season as a starter with another one, vs. Cowboys LG Larry Allen, nine-time Pro Bowler who still ranks among the best. Dockett said he grew up always wanting to stand on the star at midfield at Texas Stadium, but it is going to be a challenge for him to not view it from the seat of his pants. The Cowboys are moving the ball with the league's sixth-ranked offense, due in part to Allen continuing to maul opponents to make the running game go. If it boils down to force vs. force, the smallish Dockett is no match. But if Dockett can use his quickness to circumvent Allen, Dockett has a chance to blow up some plays and give the unit a chance.

-- Cardinals LT Leonard Davis, whose claim to fame is being big without having many games that also are big, vs. Cowboys DE Greg Ellis, who has made a career of having big games against the Cardinals. It is way past time for Davis, the second player chosen overall in the 2001 draft, to play like it. There has been speculation that he might be better going back to guard, where he played until last season and can just maul people and not worry about the fancy footwork -- which he clearly does not have. His team can't run the ball, so it's only hope is to continue passing efficiently, in hopes that might set up a bit of a running threat. Ellis, who once ran a fumble back 98 yards vs. the Cardinals, is following a nine-sack season with 3.5 so far and has the quickness to thwart a 370-pound foe.

INJURY IMPACT: Although QB Kurt Warner (groin) is nearly 100 percent, Josh McCown is expected to start again Sunday at Dallas in McCown's home state. ... Having now lost three of their top six defensive linemen for the season (DT Kenny King, wrist; DT Russell Davis, biceps; DE Calvin Pace, cut arm), the Cardinals are struggling for depth in the area where they went to training camp believing they were best supplied. That's only going to hurt their already-weak run defense, especially as games wear on and rotation players who are inexperienced have to be used. ... RT Oliver Ross (hand), who hoped to make it back for Sunday's game at Dallas, probably won't, giving converted DE Fred Wakefield another starting assignment. Wakefield, to his credit, has held his own against the likes of the Titans Kyle Vanden Bosch, Panthers Julius Peppers and 49ers Bryant Young. Wakefield did suffer an ankle sprain vs. the Titans, but he is expected to start on Sunday.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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Joe Vitt is a no-nonsense guy. He has been an NFL assistant coach for 27 seasons, and is direct and to the point. That is the approach he has used while navigating the waters as the Rams' interim head coach with Mike Martz done for the rest of the season because of a bacterial infection in his heart. It hasn't been easy for Vitt, who is close to Martz, but he has kept the players as focused as possible. That's come after the announcement Oct. 10 that Martz was taking an indefinite leave and then this past Monday (Oct. 24) when Martz revealed getting totally meant not coaching for the rest of the season. It also comes amid a broiling front-office controversy that has led some to speculate that Martz won't coach another game for the Rams.

Asked whether it's been difficult to have a normal feeling this week, Vitt said, "I don't read the papers. I am not a tabloid guy. My life hasn't changed one bit. It's my job to prepare a football team to go win a big game, and it hasn't changed one bit. We had a good practice today, and we'll have a better practice tomorrow. And we're going to prepare to win the game."

The Rams are 3-4 as they prepare for Sunday's game against Jacksonville, and they are shooting to be .500 at the bye and be able to look ahead to their Nov. 13 game at Seattle. While players are loyal to Martz, they realize their job is to play football, regardless of who the coach is. Defensive end Tyoka Jackson was asked if things are different now knowing that Martz won't coach this season. "Not at all," Jackson said. "Coaches coach and players play. I've been saying that since I've been here. When you blur the lines, that's when you get in trouble. I love Coach Martz, obviously, everybody that knows me knows that. But he has to do what he has to do to take care of his health, and he made a decision to step away to make sure that he became healthy, so he could live the rest of his life the way he is supposed to live it. That doesn't change what we do, especially on defense. He was our coach and our offensive coordinator, but now Coach (Steve) Fairchild is handling that and Coach Vitt is our head coach, but he's still our linebacker coach.

"So, it really doesn't change a thing for this defense especially, but for the entire team. You go out and practice the way you are supposed to practice. You take care of the little things, the details that coach Martz and every other good coach talks about, and then you go play the game the way you are supposed to play it, with passion and with a physical attitude, and you'll be fine. He's never made a tackle, coach Martz, on our team, and coach Vitt won't come out and make one and neither will coach Fairchild throw a block or a pass. It's all about the players on the field in between the white lines. It's a players' league. It always has been and it always will be."

As for the importance of getting to .500, Jackson said, "To me, it's like a one-game season. This thing is broken up right in half, perfectly for us, eight games, a break and then eight games. So, this is a one-game season, then we're going to take a week off and come right back. This is the biggest game of the year for us, no question about it. This is a very, very good football team coming in here, and we feel like if we can win this game, we'll be in the best shape we can possibly be in, and that's 4-4. That's not where we wanted to be, but that's the best we can do right now. So, let's take care of this business, and then we'll worry about the second half of the season after the week."

Quarterback Jamie Martin, expected to make his second straight start and fifth of his career, said of Martz's absence, "Well, we miss him, obviously. He's good at what he does. He's one of the best, but Steve is getting better every week also. He has been around the offense long enough and been around Mike and learned from him. He's doing a good job."

Players claim they don't pay attention to the papers and stories about the in-fighting that exists in the organization. "We have one job to do really and that is to perform out on the field and to play," wide receiver Kevin Curtis said. "Those things, it isn't our job or our worry, so we just kind of concentrate on what is going on on the field, and right now we're just worried about Jacksonville."

Free safety Mike Furrey commented on whether Vitt has changed at all. "As a person, he hasn't changed at all," Furrey said. "He comes in here every day, even when coach Martz was here, and prepares this defense to win. Now, he has stepped up as the head coach, and he's overseeing what the offense is doing, but he is getting us prepared every week. He and (defensive coordinator Larry) coach Marmie are getting us prepared every week to play, so you have to commend him for what he's doing."

All Vitt wants to do is think about the Jaguars.

He said Wednesday, "We had a better football practice today than we had this time last week, and we're going to need it because I believe this is the best football team we've played all year long. They have good balance on both sides of the ball. They have good balance offensively. We're going to have to play hard, physical football in order to win this game."

SERIES HISTORY: 2nd meeting. Rams lead, 1-0. The only game played between the teams was a 17-14 Rams victory on Oct. 20, 1996 in St. Louis. In one of the strangest games ever played, the Jaguars outgained the Rams 538-204, ran 87 plays to the Rams' 39 and had 36 first downs to the Rams' eight, yet the Rams won the game, thanks to six Jacksonville turnovers, including five interceptions by QB Mark Brunell. Three of those interceptions were in the red zone, with one returned 92 yards for a touchdown by Anthony Parker. The Rams had four three-and-outs in the game.

NOTES, QUOTES

--After idle Rams coach Mike Martz took the offensive early this week, saying he intends to coach the team next year while expressing displeasure with aspects of the team's front office, club president John Shaw came out swinging in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Regarding Martz's future beyond this season, Shaw said, "We anticipate that he'll be back. But if it gets to be a situation where he wants to dictate terms of his returning, then that will complicate this. He's got a year left on his contract. We anticipate that he'll be back to coach.

"I think his anticipation is that he's going to want an extension, and he's going to want to dictate terms of that extension. And at this point, I'm not sure that any of that's going to happen. Our view is that we'll have to wait and see. We'll have to wait and see how he is physically and wait and see as to what his expectations are."

Asked about the terms or conditions, Shaw said, "I think financial terms ... and who's remaining in the front office. Who stays with the organization or doesn't stay with the organization. I think all those things, at least in talking to his agent (Bob LaMonte), will ultimately be issues with him." Shaw said Martz was offered an extension four months ago, based on how the team performed this season. Said Shaw, "Mike's response was that he didn't really have to prove himself. So he wouldn't agree on an extension based on a performance level. And I respect his view that he felt he didn't have to prove himself. But there's also a view that coaches have to prove themselves every year.

"In my mind, we need to address the issue as to whether we would even offer an extension to a head coach who hasn't coached here this year."

--Defensive end Leonard Little will likely miss his second game following the Oct. 17 murder of his 24-year-old brother Jermaine, and the Rams can only hope he will be in the right frame of mind to be back after the team's bye. Interim coach Joe Vitt said Wednesday, "I talked to Leonard yesterday, and Leonard's struggling. He's grieving right now, and our football team, everybody here is lending our support to him." Vitt acknowledged that Little is being given the time he needs to deal with the situation.

--Vitt brought in an official for Wednesday's practice after the team piled up the penalties in Sunday's win over New Orleans. "The number of defensive penalties we has last week in critical situations was not acceptable," he said. "So we have to practice technique with an official in practice and make it an emphasis."

--Rookie LG Claude Terrell hopes to play after injuring his neck Sunday against New Orleans. "I should be able to (play)," he said. "It's getting better. The range of motion is coming back, so I'm just ready to go out there against those guys, Sunday." Terrell said the injury happened on a Rams touchdown scored on a 4th-and-1 play.

"I just took a funny hit to the neck," Terrell said. "The initial block was good, but I should have just stayed down on top of the guy instead of trying to get somebody else. I raised my head and the linebacker was filling the gap and I took his whole body with my neck."

QUOTE TO NOTE:
"I don't know about the tape, but I've seen the statistics where it says a touchdown and an interception." - FS Mike Furrey, asked if he thought Saints TE Ernie Conwell had possession of the ball before stealing it away for the Rams' final touchdown last Sunday.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER /ERSONNEL NOTES


--WR Torry Holt, who missed the first game of his career Sunday against New Orleans, did not practice Wednesday and it's doubtful he'll play this week against Jacksonville.

--CB Travis Fisher did not practice Wednesday because of a groin injury and is questionable for this week's game. Fisher is better this week than he was last week at this time.

--CB Chris Johnson had an MRI on his back, which was negative, but he did not practice Wednesday.

--QB Marc Bulger threw Wednesday and his injured shoulder is improving every day. Bulger did not practice Wednesday, and Jamie martin took all the snaps with the first unit.

--G Tom Nutten was back with the first unit at left guard in practice Wednesday with Claude Terrell limited by a neck injury.

GAME PLAN:
The Rams will need to be physical to move the ball on the Jaguars' defense and be able to protect the ball on offense. If WRs Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt are out again, the offense will have to rely on the running of Steven Jackson, with WR Kevin Curtis the go-to guy. For the Rams to pass effectively, quarterback Jamie Martin will have to be on his game. Defensively, again it comes down to preventing running back Fred Taylor from hitting for big plays. Quarterback Byron Leftwich is a tough competitor, and the Rams will have to take that into account in their rush schemes.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Rams interior line vs. Jaguars DTs Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. The Rams will have their work cut out for them, going against two of the better tackles in the league. Right guard Adam Timmerman, center Andy McCollum and either Tom Nutten or Claude Terrell at left guard will have to control them to get RB Steven Jackson going on the traps he likes so well.

INJURY IMPACT: The Rams could be shorthanded again on offense, with WRs Torry Holt (knee) and Isaac Bruce (toe) expected to be out, along with QB Marc Bulger (shoulder). ... The groin injury that has affected CB Travis Fisher resulted in rookie CB Ron Bartell getting on the field and playing well. Bartell will likely see extensive action again this week.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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It might be a good thing for the 49ers this week that they will not be facing the former teammate who was traded last week. But they could also probably use his services this week against the Buccaneers, too.

Quarterback Tim Rattay, who tore apart the 49ers' first-team defense when he practiced on the scout team, will enter his first game for the Buccaneers as the No. 3 man on the roster. The 49ers face the Buccaneers this week at Monster Park after dealing Rattay for a conditional sixth-round draft choice. Rookie Alex Smith, who took over for Rattay as the 49ers' starter after four games, is not expected to play because of a right knee sprain. Backup Ken Dorsey is likely to get his eighth career start.

While the 49ers had had some problems at quarterback this season, they've had an even more difficult time with opposing quarterbacks. The 49ers' defense has allowed the opposition a passer rating of 110.0. This week the 49ers will face Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms, who is making his first start of the season after starter Brian Griese was lost for the year with a knee injury. Rattay, meanwhile, will probably have to wait a while before getting a chance because of his lack of familiarity with the Tampa offense. He spent the team's bye week cramming to learn the system.

The 49ers have traded away three of their better players from last season because, apparently, they did not fit into Nolan's long-term plans for the organization.
Defensive end John Engelberger was traded to the Broncos for cornerback Willie Middlebrooks, whom the team has been released twice but re-signed for this week's game; linebacker Jamie Winborn was traded to the Jaguars for seventh-round pick; and Rattay was sent to the Buccaneers for a sixth-round selection.
Niners coach Mike Nolan has stated that he is not looking for any "quick fixes," which might explain why the team discarded some players who might make the team better in the immediate future but don't figure into the team's long-term plans. "As I said all along I'm not about quick fixes, but I'm certainly not about 1-5 either," Nolan.

The 49ers are looking for something - anything - to show that there is some life in the organization. Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh knows all about the challenges that face Nolan, a first-year coach. He inherited a 2-14 team in 1979. In his first year, Walsh also had a 2-14 season.

He offered some advice to Nolan this week in an interview with the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat's Lowell Cohn. "Don't talk about wins and losses; talk about the team's performance and areas where it's improving, be supportive of the players," Walsh said. "Give no false accolades about great performances by the quarterback, for example. People won't buy into that. If you win a game, it doesn't assure you of winning the next one. You can win and the next week have a total collapse. It takes time.

"I never stated my goals, winning the Super Bowl or winning the division. I'd have been embarrassed to talk about goals. All I wanted was to be competitive, to have pride and credibility."

Nolan has repeatedly stated that the team's goal is to win the NFC West. Even after their thoroughly humiliating 52-17 loss to the Redskins on Sunday, Nolan was not backing down from his assertion that a trip to the playoffs is attainable. "I believe, as far as the goals we set forth, we continued to lose a little bit of ground on that, but we are not changing our target because it is too early to do that," Nolan said. "We set a target when we started and we'll stay with that target. That's my plan."

The 49ers are 1-5, with a five-game losing streak, and they've been dominated statistically in each of their games - including their lone victory.
The team has shown no reason for hope. In six games, the opposition has recorded 84 more first downs and 1,428 more total yards. Starting quarterback Alex Smith, who did not practice Wednesday due to a sprained right knee, has a passer rating of 17.5.

"I believe it's difficult right now for everyone in what we're going through, but I do also believe that in the end it will make us stronger," Nolan said. "We are not the first team to go through difficult times, and we certainly won't be the last."

SERIES HISTORY: 18th meeting. The 49ers lead 13-4, but the Buccaneers have won three of the last four meetings.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Nolan considers keeping his players on board for the entire season his biggest challenge through the end of the season. "I believe it would be more difficult if this was in the third or fourth year in this regime, because by then everyone is saying, 'Let's just go with a fresh start,'" Nolan said. "One of the reasons that it smells good in the building is because guys do have a real confidence in the direction it's going throughout the building."

--Veteran defensive end Bryant Young called every season-ticket holder to deliver a message to wear the color red to Sunday's game against the Buccaneers. OK, Young did not actually dial the numbers, he made a recording that was sent in phone calls to the team's fan base. The message from the 49ers via Young is that now is the time to show your faith. "We want to look up in the stands and see a red fog of 49ers fans," Young said.

--Nolan reflected fondly on his friendship with Giants long-time owner Wellington Mara, who passed away this week. Nolan was a defensive assistant under Dan Reeves with the Giants for four seasons. His father, Dick, played for the Giants. "He contributed so much to the NFL," Nolan said. "I listened to all kinds of stories from my father who played for the Giants for eight years. I remember hearing about 'Well' and all the things he did for him.

"I'll miss him personally because he's remained a friend ever since I left."

--Quarterback Alex Smith could have avoided the hit from Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington that resulted in his sprained knee. He said the coaching staff reminded him that it is OK to slide. "That conversation did come up," he said. "I've taken a lot of shots and never been seriously injured. There are times when to take a hit and times when not. I probably could've gotten down."

He said things are a lot different than his college days when he would leave the pocket. "I had a target on me in college, but it's not like the target when an NFL quarterback rolls out of the pocket," Smith said. "You see everybody's eyes light up. Everybody turns and reacts to you. It wasn't like that at other levels."

--Smith said he saw nothing wrong or illegal about Arrington's tackle, on which he nearly decapitated the quarterback. Smith then fell awkwardly, twisting his knee under him. "He was trying to make a tackle," Smith said. "I need to handle that situation differently next time."

--The 49ers selected two offensive linemen on the first day of the draft, but neither has made his starting debut. Both guard/center David Baas and tackle/guard Adam Snyder are players the team believes will turn into solid NFL players, but the time has not been right to get them on the field, Nolan said. "What you don't want to do is have two young linemen in there with a young quarterback and have them all learn at the same time," Nolan said. "If you can get around that a little bit, you'd like to. That's what we've done. With the young quarterbacks in there, we're trying to keep a little bit more experience in there because it takes a little bit off the quarterback's plate from a mental standpoint."

BY THE NUMBERS: The 49ers' leading pass-catcher is Brandon Lloyd, who has 19 receptions for 369 yards. Through six games a year ago tight end Eric Johnson led the club with 45 catches for 484 yards.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You expect difficulty, but you certainly don't hope for this. It's one of those things where you say if you truly expected this then why did you do it. It's one of those things that if he doesn't go through it now, I know he would go through it later. Alex has some playmaking ability in him that to this point hasn't come out very much. When it does come out that is what I'm looking for" - 49ers coach Mike Nolan on the struggles of rookie QB Alex Smith.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Running back Frank Gore is the only rookie who has played relatively well in an expanded role for the 49ers this season. Gore is making a pitch to get more playing time as the season progresses. Gore, a third-round draft pick from the University of Miami (Fla.), scored his first NFL touchdown, a 72-yard scamper against the Redskins. "My time will come to be the man," Gore said. "I just got to keep working and try my best. Every time I get an opportunity I have to make the best of it. Right now, Kevan Barlow is the starter. It's tough for me. But my freshman year at Miami I went through the same thing."

Gore has impressed the 49ers' coaching staff with his running style. While Barlow often hesitates and "dances" too much, Gore hit the hole hard - like a man much bigger than his 5-foot-9, 217-pound frame.

"You'd think he's a 240-pound man sometimes the way he runs it up in there," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "He's a tough nut." Comparing Gore and Barlow, Nolan said, "They're two entirely different types of runners. Frank hits the hole pretty quick. He doesn't dance much, whereas sometimes Kevan will dance around the hole. He can learn from (Gore)."

Nolan said he is limiting Gore's carries because he does not want to overwork him. Gore's promising college career was derailed because of major injuries to both knees. "He's got some nicks and things like that, so we want to make sure we've got him," Nolan said. "Another thing is that if one of them goes down, we've got Maurice Hicks. I feel that we have three good backs."

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--QB Alex Smith sustained a sprained right knee ligament (medial collateral) and some tissue damage upon falling awkwardly after Redskins LB LaVar Arrington nearly took his head off with a tackle early in Sunday's game. Smith did not practiced Wednesday and is not expected to start.

--SS Tony Parrish leads the NFL in interceptions since the beginning of the 2001 season. Parrish, who leads the 49ers with two interceptions this season, has 25 picks (one ahead of Cincinnati's Tory James) the last five seasons.

--LB Derek Smith is halfway to another 100-tackle season. He leads the 49ers through six games with 50 tackles. He had 100 or more tackles in each of his first eight seasons, joining Miami's Zack Thomas and Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks as the active leaders in that category.

--WR Johnnie Morton is wearing down a little, coach Mike Nolan said. Morton, 34, was originally signed to play 15 to 20 snaps a game. But with the injury to Arnaz Battle, Morton has been asked to play pretty much all of the last three games.

--CB Ahmed Plummer is likely to miss another three games or more, coach Mike Nolan said. Plummer underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his ankle last month. He has missed the last three games.

--CB Bruce Thornton will start his third consecutive game on the left side in place of injured Ahmed Plummer. According to coach Mike Nolan, Thornton played "OK" last week against the Redskins in a 52-17 loss. The Redskins did not hit on a big play against Thornton.

GAME PLAN: Because of their lack of talent on both sides of the ball, the 49ers' coaching staff has an unbelievably difficult task. How do you keep this team competitive against superior teams? The 49ers catch a break because Tampa Bay will start backup Chris Simms, who has attempted just 10 passes this season. Although the 49ers have the worst pass defense in the league, they are almost in a situation where they have to make the Bucs beat them with their passing attack. Tampa Bay running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is listed as questionable for the game, which means Michael Pittman might start. The 49ers have been decent against the run, so they'll probably try to play a lot of eight men in the box to challenge Simms and the Buccaneers to throw the ball. The big question is whether they can then do anything to slow down the pass. Opposing quarterbacks have compiled a 110.0 passer rating. Offensively, the 49ers do not know whether Alex Smith or Ken Dorsey will be at quarterback. Even if Smith plays, his mobility will be severely limited because of a right knee sprain. Dorsey started seven games last season, and said he is much more prepared this season to play solid football. The 49ers must get some production out of running backs Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore because they have a better chance of gaining consistency in that facet of their game than with a passing attack that lacks an efficient quarterback or a reliable pass target.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

49ers CB Shawntae Spencer, who had some problems last week against the Redskins with some mental mistakes in coverage, vs. Buccaneers WR Joey Galloway, who leads the team with 31 catches for 499 yards and four touchdowns.

FS Mike Adams, who is making strides in his first season as a starter, vs. QB Chris Simms, who takes over as the starter after the season-ending injury to Brian Griese.

LT Anthony Clement, who has struggled but is likely to remain as the starter this week due to Jonas Jennings' injury, vs. RDE Simeon Rice, who leads the Bucs with five sacks.

WR Brandon Lloyd, who has produced some big plays but also has a tendency to disappear for long stretches of time, vs. CB Brian Kelly, the team leader with three interceptions.

INJURY IMPACT: QB Alex Smith (right knee) did not practice Wednesday and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Buccaneers. It does not appear as if Smith will be able to start, in which case backup Ken Dorsey would take over. ... LB Saleem Rasheed is expected to miss up to another month after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus cartilage. ... LT Jonas Jennings has shown some improvement after sustaining a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He is not expected to play this week against the Buccaneers and will require major surgery whenever he decides to end his season. ... WR Arnaz Battle has a chance to return to action Sunday against the Buccaneers. He's missed most of the last three games with a sprained right knee ligament. ... Center Jeremy Newberry will not practice this week but should start Sunday. He is hobbled by a chronic knee problem. ... WR Otis Amey, who missed last week's game with a high ankle sprain, is not likely to return this week. ... CB Ahmed Plummer is expected to miss at least three more games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle. ... T Patrick Estes, a rookie reserve, is listed as probable with an ankle sprain after missing last week's game. ... WR Derrick Hamilton is still on PUP after sustaining a torn ACL in the off-season. He is not expected to play this season. ... LB Jeff Ulbrich (left biceps), CB Mike Rumph (foot), TE Eric Johnson (foot) and WR Rashaun Woods (thumb) are on injured reserve.


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